Women will vote for the first time at a Vatican meeting | ET REALITY

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When Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, an advocate for women’s ordination, participated in a major Vatican meeting this month, she was skeptical that an institution dominated by men for 2,000 years would be willing to listen to women like her.

Nuns and 70 lay people, including women, with the right to vote, also participated for the first time in the meeting of some 300 bishops from around the world. He was summoned by Pope Francis to discuss the future of the Roman Catholic Church, including sensitive topics: married priests, the blessing of homosexual couples, the sacraments for the divorced and remarried, as well as the role of women.

As the confidential meeting comes to a close on October 29, Ms Jeppesen-Spuhler said she was pleasantly surprised. Some clerics — priests, bishops and cardinals — openly supported women’s advancement, she said. Some even supported the ordination of women as deacons.

There were “really good discussions,” Jeppesen-Spuhler said, adding: “It hasn’t been women against bishops and cardinals. It’s not that.”

Catholic women have been calling for greater equality and a greater voice in the functioning of the church for years, and while consensus is building for different ways forward, there remains deep opposition to the ordination of women as deacons, and much less like priests. Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach, celebrate weddings, funerals and baptisms, but only priests can celebrate Mass.

Such a momentous decision ultimately falls to Pope Francis, who is not expected to make any major changes after this month’s formally convened Synod on Synodality, which will reconvene for a final phase next October.

Critics have said that making women deacons is a slippery slope to making them priests, which would violate 2,000 years of church doctrine and undermine the church’s authority.

“The ordination through sacraments of women as deacons, priests, priests and bishops is not possible,” said Cardinal Gerhard Müller in an interview on the eve of the synod in which he is participating. No pope “can decide otherwise without undermining the authority of the teachings,” he added.

Still, Jeppesen-Spuhler, who works for a Swiss Catholic aid agency, said discussions at the synod reflected what appeared to be growing support for the idea that women should play a broader and better recognized role in life of local churches. .

Women already work in the Church’s hospitals, schools and charities, and in many countries they fill ministerial voids (leading parishes and carrying out pastoral responsibilities) where there is a shortage of priests. However, in the end they are subordinated to a male hierarchy.

In polling Catholics around the world – a two-year process that began in 2021 and led to this month’s meeting – the role of women emerged as a pressing issue.

Respondents cited “issues of women’s participation and recognition” as priorities and said that “the desire for a greater presence of women in positions of responsibility and governance emerged as crucial elements.”

The meeting’s working document – ​​a document that participants have been using as an agenda for discussions – says the church must reject “all forms of discrimination and exclusion that women face in the Church.”

Many of the global surveys, as well as those from some countries, also called for consideration of the diaconate for women. “Is it possible to foresee this and in what way?” the working paper asked.

It remains to be seen whether the deliberations in the synod hall will actually turn into firm recommendations for change.

In his 10 years of papacy, Pope Francis has opened some doors to women. He issued a papal letter in 2020 that said women should have more formal roles in the church; In 2021 he changed the laws to formally allow women to give Bible readings during mass, act as altar servers, and distribute communion.

He has also placed women in several Vatican offices and, in a move welcomed by women’s groups, appointed Sister Nathalie Becquart, of France, as one of the synod’s top officials.

But some critics have dismissed the appointments and participation of women in the synod as a facade. “The much-publicized inclusion of a small group of women simply highlights the gender imbalance at the core of the Church,” Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, told a meeting of progressive Catholics in Rome last week. “Equality is a right, not a favor. “The women who attend the Synod on Synodality are there as a favor, not as a right.”

Advocates of women’s empowerment recognize that resistance to major changes in the role of women is deeply rooted in church leadership, and not just among conservatives. But, they argue, social changes are already being reflected among grassroots Catholics and will only be built, making more formal changes necessary for the survival of the church.

“Clearly, the Church is changing from the ground up, even as it reaffirms its immutability,” said Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and academic, who has long called on the Church to empower women and the laity. Her keynote speech last week at a progressive event, billed as an alternative synod, ended with a cry: “If God’s people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.”

Catherine Clifford, a theologian who teaches systematic and historical theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, and a participant in this month’s synod, said that inside the room it had been “a challenge, at times, to convey to some of the bishops the urgent need for substantial change in relation to the inclusion of women in leadership, ministries and decision-making bodies.”

“While there is a surprising openness to considering these issues,” he wrote in an email, “there is also a weight of inertia to overcome.”

Deep divisions remain even among women over the ordination of women as deacons.

Renée Köhler-Ryan, dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, who is skeptical about the ordination of women deacons, told reporters that “too much emphasis” had been placed on the issue. This “detracts from all the other things we could be doing,” she said.

Still, others, like Mrs. Jeppesen-Spuhler, said she was optimistic about the future of the church and about the role of women in it.

“I have the impression that everything is really on the table,” Jeppesen-Spuhler said. “The question is how far we will go, will we really reach more concrete steps? That’s the interesting thing, but I have a very positive feeling.”

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